Zoho aims to beat Microsoft Office

* Zoho online document creation and editing

I am fascinated by the whole Web applications segment that is attempting to build Microsoft Office functionality and deliver it as an Internet application service.

In this newsletter, I've covered a number of such competitors and they just keep getting better. That said, none of the players are anywhere near cracking Microsoft's hegemony with the Office suite but maybe one day, as in the Matrix, the ONE will appear.

What will the ONE be like? Many of the application service provider-style attempts so far have tried to create a parallel universe to the Microsoft Office world - essentially a one-to-one functional correspondence. The problem is that no matter how good the analogy is, the reduced performance and vastly different context of online use ensures that these offerings are not replacements.

To out-Office Office in the online world you need a service that is like Office but not identical. It must encompass being online and so expand the things that you can do. In other words, like Office where it is functionally valuable, dropping features where they aren't useful, and adding new features that make the service more valuable than Office on the desktop.

So, this week, I have another interesting new entry into this market, Zoho.

Zoho's edge is twofold: It offers some really useful tools (lacking only a presentation creation and editing tool) and the integration of these tools with e-mail, the Web, and your browser-based desktop is outstanding.

Today we'll concentrate on just one of Zoho's applications: Zoho Writer. This service provides a familiar screen layout with a document management bar to the left with buttons for creating a new document, importing documents from your local machine's storage, and deleting documents with a larger editing panel on the right.

The document panel is divided into four sections: My Docs, for your current private documents; My Templates, you can save any document as a template; Shared Documents, for documents that others have shared with you; and Trash.

The editing panel is tabbed so you can have multiple documents open simultaneously. The WYSIWYG editor, which provides automatic backup, has all of the usual text editing features such as styles, fonts, font attributes, tables, links, and anchors.

A menu bar over the editing panel provides access to the document's history (Zoho Writer includes versioning and difference display), local printing, export and import of documents by e-mail, document preview, save as template, and save. Formats supported for e-mail and locally save documents are HTML, Microsoft DOC, PDF, and OpenOffice SWX.

At the bottom of the editing pane are links to share the current document publicly or privately. Public sharing provides a URL that you can give to anyone and the document can be set to allow user comments. Any documents that you publicly share are also listed in an RSS feed.

So what we have here is a remarkably full featured document creation, editing, sharing, and collaboration system with extensive support for online integration making it the best online alternative to Word I have come across so far.

Zoho Writer is completely free and the company's challenge is to now get enough visibility that small business and home users see it as a real alternative to Word.

Who knows, maybe Zoho will be the ONE.

Venture capitalists take note: These services are market defining. A great investment candidate.

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